Mobile search is not online search (and why that matters)

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Barry Chu
Barry Chu

There's a lot of buzz around the mobile Web and mobile search these days. Early metrics have been impressive: Last year, The New York Times reported a mobile traffic increase of 600%, ESPN reported that its mobile traffic surpassed that of its Web site, and mobile ad company AdMob has posted impression volumes north of 2 billion per month.

These statistics read very much like the pioneer days of the Web, but what's truly exciting are the areas in mobile that have not yet matured: an addressable market consisting of more phones than PCs, the data possibilities of these very personal devices, and search.

One only has to look at the valuation of Google and its very public search wars with Yahoo and Microsoft to understand that search has tremendous value. Indeed, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that one of those three will win the mobile search world as well. However, while it's certain that the major players will have a place at the table, there is yet room and opportunity for others to enter the market and exceed user expectations.

The primary reason for this is that mobile search is fundamentally different from Internet search, from its underlying technology to how users interact with it. It is incumbent on everyone in mobile to understand these differences, and to consider how they impact our companies and business models.

The following are some key differences for mobile search users:

Internet search is fundamentally designed for a user with a large monitor and between one and 30 minutes to find content. Mobile users have five to 60 seconds and perhaps five lines of visible text to find what they are looking for. Much of what the large search players have learned in optimizing the Internet search experience is effectively useless in the mobile Web. This means that all the algorithms, technology and interfaces that search providers use today to build a rich experience online must be fundamentally rewritten to be effective in the mobile universe.

One example of this non-portability of fundamental components is translating the Web's three text ads above the results to mobile's one. On the surface it's a subtle change, but it's not so simple once you realize that the search engines' bidding and auction models depend on multiple ranked ads. Using these existing Web models, on pages with space only for a single ad, the system's second- and third-ranked advertisers get zero impressions.

Many searches in mobile are either mobile-specific (ringtones, games) or real-world focused (people, places, things). While Internet search finds such items within results, the reality is that if you search for “café” on the top Internet search engines, top results will feature “Corporate Average Fuel Economy” rather than a list of cafés near you, requiring the user to explicitly choose a “maps” function for a list of cafés.

Finally, let's not forget that the mobile ecosystem is fundamentally different from online. The world's wireless operators have spent billions of dollars building the infrastructure behind the Mobile Web. It is in the operators' best interest to create a mobile Web universe as vibrant and competitive as possible, with no single player obtaining an inordinate amount of leverage. The world is no longer blind to the value of search, and for better or worse, the world has seen the impact of having one dominant player in search.

What does this mean? For entrepreneurs and technologists, it means opportunities to create value in mobile search, while the major Internet search engines struggle to adapt their current technology assets to the new user and content models. Instead, they must create new solutions. This inability to leverage their Web assets translates into opportunity for new mobile players to claim key niches before the big guns arrive.

For operators, it's critical to look for true innovation in the mobile ecosystem, and to support that innovation.

For advertisers, it means there is a need to experiment and spend with smaller, innovative mobile players. Just as those advertisers who figured out how to best optimize Internet clicks generated the highest ROI, those advertisers who determine how best to optimize for the mobile experience will generate the highest ROI in the future. The best time to learn is before your competitors do.

For publishers — get mobile search on your site. Understand how your users apply search, and understand its value so that you'll be prepared to take your piece of the pie in this next generation of search.

Barry Chu is general manager of advertising for Medio Systems. He will be speaking at the “Search Advertising Goes Mobile” session at next week's Search Engine Strategies Conference and Expo in New York. He can be reached at bchu@medio.com.

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